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Car stereo interfaces, while lacking the sex appeal of other car audio products, seem to be heading into the limelight.
Interface suppliers say the need for their products is growing, as it becomes increasingly difficult to remove factory head units from the dash to replace them with aftermarket products.
Also, interfaces that simplify satellite radio installations, or switch Sirius service to XM and vice versa, are expected to play an increasing role in the market over the next few years. Ron Freeman, VP for Peripheral, said of the interface market, "The entire industry has its ear to what we're doing. These aren't convenience items anymore because without them, you can't perform the installation, and if you do, you can create major liability issues."
Over the past several years, the car industry has widened the use of data buses that tie radios into car functions, including safety functions such as seat belt chimes. Once available in upscale cars, the data buses are now offered in basic car models.
"Some of these products that we're finally coming out with, allow the industry to continue putting radios in cars. If we can't come out with them, then you won't be replacing radios," added Freeman.
Interfaces are also becoming more critical with the proliferation of satellite radio, MP3 and car video. Blitz Safe says it will offer at CES several products that allow various XM tuners to plug directly into the harness of factory radios, so the OE radio will provide XM controls (including station presets, direct station input, artist and song titles, and genre searching). "We will be doing this for portable satellite tuners, as well," said president/CEO Ira Marlowe.
He added that interfaces for satellite radio are all the more crucial because the OE radios are increasingly difficult to remove and to replace with aftermarket satellite-ready versions. "The radio is becoming an image on an LCD Navi-type display. So the physical radio will disappear and, unfortunately for the 12-volt business, it's happening faster than we realized," said Marlowe. The same design-out problem is occurring with FM modulators. SoundGate president Rob Putnam estimates that 50 percent of new vehicles no longer accept FM modulators, currently a chief means of adding aftermarket products to a factory radio. "The factory antenna systems are becoming so complex that you can't wire into them as you did in the past," explained Putnam.
SoundGate is releasing its first wireless FM transmitters, which circumvent the problem. Two new units allow customers to bring in audio from an external source such as an MP3 player to a factory system without wires. According to Putnam, the wireless transmitters also provide better quality sound than FM modulators. The units are offered in eight- and 40-channel versions at $63.95 and $73.95, respectively.
Belkin is also introducing a special kit to work with the Apple iPod in combination with an FM transmitter (pictured, below left).
Peripheral will introduce a product around CES time that is a wireless FM transmitter and receiver combination. It allows a video system to wirelessly play back through the car speakers. An installer adds the receiver to a video monitor and the transmitter to a DVD player to interface with the car radio. The product is expected to ship in two weeks at a price to be announced. Peripheral will also show at CES a wireless FM transmitter for up to three inputs (such as MP3, DVD and satellite radio) with switching between all three, the company said.
According to Freeman, price will be a key concern for the interface segment in the future. "The problem we're always facing is the fact that the things we are developing aren't $10 and we may get to the point where the products we offer are the same price as the factory radio, which is my biggest fear. So we're always looking for ways to maintain cost."
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